The Film Festival Rat Race

As a matter of full disclosure, this blog is written on the basis of the personal experiences of producers associated with Yellow Brick Studio, for which a number of its films associated with LegacyVision Films, were entered into numerous film festivals. That being said, entering film festivals has long been an acceptable form of distribution for the independent filmmaker. Of course this was more a reflection of the fact that Hollywood would always dominate the movies screened in brick and mortar theaters. And as filmmakers typically would not have any theater distribution deals secured in advance, the film festival was the only realistic way for an indie filmmaker’s movie to reach the “big screen.”

The History Of Film Festivals

Unbeknownst to many, the origin of film festivals began as far back as the 1920’s, in the rise of film societies and cine-clubs, that developed in various countries, largely as a reaction to the dominance of the burgeoning Hollywood film industry over the cinemas of European cities who were devoted to documentaries and films of an avant-garde nature. Film clubs, many of which were made up of aspiring filmmakers, eventually developed wherein filmmaking ideas could be shared and creative inspirations spurred on. These became the predecessors and prototypes of the modern day film festival.

The first true film festival was actually the result of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s love of movies and his use of it as a means for ushering political propaganda. Among the cultural projects he chose to support through his Ministry of Information was the Venice Biennial Exhibition of Italian Art, which gave birth to the International Exhibition of Cinematographic Art in August 1932, wherein the first festival commenced with the premiere of the horror classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) and included twenty-four other entries from seven countries.

Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde – The First Major Movie At A Film Festival

Other, smaller festivals would evolve in the wake of Venice’s early success, but it was the creation of Cannes that truly established the film festival in the format that we have all come accustomed to experiencing. Cannes, then referred to as the Cannes International Film Festival, debuted in September 1939, and its film showings included The Wizard of Oz and Only Angels Have Wings. Gary Cooper, Mae West, Douglas Fairbanks, Norma Shearer, and Tyrone Power walked the festival’s red carpet.

The war postponed for a time the growth of film festivals but upon its ending festivals began to proliferate at a growing rate in Europe and elsewhere during the 1950s. And as the war and politics got more and more in the rear view mirror, even warring nations began to sprout festivals, giving hope that art would affect and promote a better future for all. The Berlin International Film Festival, for example, was established in 1951, and contended that it would become an artistic meeting ground between East and West when even the Cold War continued to dominate the persona of East Germany.

The Cannes Film Festival – The Original Template For The Modern Day Film Festival

The most significant film festival to emerge in the 1960s was the New York Film Festival, founded in 1963 at the Lincoln Center, which was one of Manhattan’s leading cultural venues. Modeled somewhat after the London Film Festival, the program of the New York Festival was dominated by art films, avant-garde works, and documentaries, and helped to signal in the notion that festivals “were” different, that it was not merely a preview of movies to eventually be premiered in Hollywood.

The 1970’s brought in two major developments in the history of film festivals. One was the debut of the Toronto International Film Festival in 1976, which over the years has become one of the most inclusive of all festivals in the world, with its annual program ranging from domestic productions to international art films to a large assortment of Hollywood movies than are likely to be found at any comparable festival of its like. The other major development of the 1970s was the founding of the United States Film Festival in Salt Lake City in 1978, which would eventually be acquired in 1985 by actor Robert Redford and eventually become the Sundance Film Festival in 1989, which became one of the signature festivals that showcased films produced by independent filmmakers.

Sundance – The Mecca For Independent Filmmakers

Alongside these particular festivals, whose publicity garnered the attention of the world and thereby all interested filmmakers and served to transform the film festival into the mainstream cultural tradition that it is today, thousands of other festivals of modest statures inevitably were influenced by the trend and were created. It is estimated that there are now (2022) over 3,000 film festivals currently existing around the world, and that if one were to count every film festival that has ever been created, which includes certain inactive festivals who have chosen to lay dormant for a while but are committed to opening up again, that this number would surpass 15,000.

The Film Festival Trap

Ask filmmakers who have produced their short film or feature length movie, now that they’ve completed post-production, what exactly they are going to do with the finished work, and you will get the same answer. “We’re going to enter it in as many film festivals as possible!” When asked why, often times a look of incredulity appears on their expression, for to them their answer is obvious, they want to get their work out to as many viewing venues as possible.

Does this make sense? On the surface, yes. Film festivals are a wonderful way to showcase a short film or movie. But there are two factors to consider. One, applying to film festivals and gaining acceptance are two different things. One particular festival that Yellow Brick Studio once entered one of its LegacyVision Films, a very little known festival held in a small state on the East Coast of the United States, received 5,000 entries. Consequently, the film, like with many others entered, was not accepted. But the fee that it costs to submit, about $40, was obviously not returned. Herein lies the first consequential thing about applying to film festivals. When one applies, one has to realize that there is no guarantee that it will be accepted, and also, it costs money.

You’ve seen them. Those ubiquitous movie posters that shows a bevy of film festival laurels on them. Even if a laurel is from a little known (and possibly barely attended) film festival held in a town no one has ever heard of before, the listing of any laurel looks great. Don’t get us wrong. This is certainly no denigration of film festivals in general and contrary to what you might be thinking right now, certainly not a disparagement of “any” type of film festival, large or small, known or unknown. But the fact of the matter is that entering into each of these festivals costs the indie filmmaker a tidy bit of cash. Consider that the filmmaker who had his film accepted to 10 festivals, quite likely entered maybe 20, possibly 30 in all. Also when you consider that the cost to enter each festival may average out to be around $50 and this amounts to a tidy bit of change.

Festivals Are Good – But Entering Can Be Expensive

The other answer that is frequently returned in response to “Why film festivals,” is the reasoning that the exposure attained from screening the film will garner the interest of some film distributor or representative of a film marketing company, who is sitting in the audience who subsequently falls in love with their work and offers them a lucrative distribution deal.

On the surface, this, too, makes absolute sense. However, the reality is that if any of the major distributors or marketing companies do in fact approach the filmmaker and offers a contract, the fine print will show conditions that seriously needs to be evaluated and weighed before signing. For one, usually the contract is an “exclusive” deal. This means once the filmmaker signs the dotted line they cannot showcase their film on any other platform. Not on Amazon, not on Vimeo, not even on YouTube. Basically, the filmmaker releases all rights to distribution. It’s no longer their movie. Second, the contract is usually long-term. How long? Well, in many cases as long as 10 years, and sometimes 12. Repeat that to yourself. TWELVE YEARS. Third, the deal tells you that the first amount of sales, as much as $50,000 to $75,000, is RETAINED by the company to cover their marketing expenses. You see, it costs money for them to find the buyers of your movie. They have to fly to such “other” festivals and film conventions and markets, stay at hotels while they are there, and eat, and commute, well, you get the idea.

So the point is to this major section of the deal is that the filmmaker will not realize a “dime” in sales income until after as much as $75,000. And to this even the most Don Quixote of filmmakers, if they are paying even a scintilla of attention, would have to ask themselves whether their wonderful film is even going to bring in anything close to that amount. Lastly, if the filmmaker had used union actors and any sales income comes from mediums other than what the original production was approved as, then any income realized from a different medium (e.g. a movie shot as an ultra low budget production intended for a theatrical release, sells in some other country on a television network) is subject to paying those actors a residual. The problem? If the filmmaker can’t get any payments until the company recoups its designated marketing costs, then the filmmaker must still make those residual payments out of their own pocket. Most filmmakers entering film festivals have no idea of the impending offer they might get if they are so “fortunate” to stand out at the festival and get approached by a distributor or marketer. The message to the filmmaker? If you get offered a contract, you better really read the fine print.

The Contracts Of Film Distributors And Marketers Need To Be Carefully Analyzed

Getting back to costs. There are also the added incidental expenses that come with being accepted into a lot of festivals. Take that filmmaker who’s got 10 laurels on his poster. Because he is caught up in the euphoria of getting “accepted” into this many, he might very well opt to travel to as many as five of them, if not all. Airfare, hotel accommodations, shuttle costs, meals, well, once more, you get the idea. Film festivals can become a kind of trap. It could become a kind of filmmaker’s “Keeping up with the Joneses,” where often times the filmmaker is following a tried and true route that is unfortunately leading them to a mirage. The fact of the matter is that “most” indie filmmakers are not approached by distributors or marketers, but even if they were, as we’ve described, the usual conditions just doesn’t work out in favor of the filmmakers themselves. And as we’ve discussed, applying to and eventually attending festivals “could” burgeon out of control. Filmmakers would be wise to seriously think out what exactly are they attempting to do by entering any festival. And this is acknowledging that there IS an intrinsic value to having one’s film screened at a film festival. Sometimes, it may be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. So it is not the position of Yellow Brick Studio to advocate “against” pursuing the film festival process. Only that one approaches it with their eyes wide open.

So What Now?

So in the end, after all of the hoopla settles down and the festival tour is over, the filmmaker has spent a good deal of money “in addition to” the funds s/he might have even contributed to the making of the movie, and even if s/he was approached by a distributor or marketer, finds s/he cannot sign that restrictive contract. In the end s/he is faced with the realities of what to do going forward. To this we offer Serenergy, Yellow Brick Studio’s video on demand (VOD) platform where you can showcase your work at no cost. Read more about this option on the DIY VOD page of this website, of if you are already interested, see the Serenergy website for more information, or contact Yellow Brick Studio today.

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